Environmentalists disrupted an otherwise routine auction Wednesday of federal oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, urging the Obama administration to halt drilling on public lands and in federal waters.
An estimated 150 protesters swarmed the auction room at the New Orleans Superdome, chanting “Shut it down” and “Keep it in the ground” while officials from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management tried to sell drilling rights for areas off the coast of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.
On stage, BOEM Regional Director Mike Celata raised his voice to read the six- and seven-figure bids over the screams and chants of protesters who stood, at times, just inches away from him, according to an audio broadcast of the event and interviews with participants.
“Most of the time you’re sitting there trying to write down the bids and it’s almost boring. None of that today,” said Randall Luthi, head of the National Ocean Industries Association and a former offshore drilling regulator.
The demonstration comes after the Obama administration’s decision to restrict offshore drilling along the East Coast while allowing auctions to go forward in the Gulf and Alaska’s Cook Inlet. Last week, 47 groups including Friends of the Earth and Sierra Club sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging his administration to cancel Wednesday’s lease sales, saying they “continue the dangerous disconnect between your administration’s climate goals and the continued leasing of federal lands and waters for fossil fuel extraction.”
But the sale went on, drawing $156.4 million in total high bids, BOEM officials said.
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“They were not successful in holding up the process,” Janice Schneider, assistant secretary for land and minerals management, told reporters after the auction. “The oil and gas industry remains a vital part of our nation’s economy, and we were very pleased we were able to proceed with and conclude the sale successfully.”
Similar protests have targeted Bureau of Land Management lease sales, culminating in the decision to postpone one auction in Utah last November, after officials realized they didn’t have room to accommodate the large showing of activists.
Activists opposing fossil fuels have also protested at FERC meetings to consider oil and gas infrastructure, including pipelines and liquefied natural gas facilities. After anticipated protests at a BLM auction of oil and gas leases in Utah last November, the agency postponed the sale, moving it from a conference room in their Utah office building to a bigger venue three months later.
“A lot of the difficulty we’ve had is adjusting to the level of public interest that’s been brought to these lease sales,” BLM Director Neil Kornze told members of a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee Wednesday, after being questioned about the canceled auction in Utah. “Historically, these have been very quiet affairs — 15, 20 people, sitting together, conducting these sales, and now we’ve often times have hundreds of people attending.”
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